Back it up

As a new year approaches, it is once again time to resolve ourselves to change behaviors we believe are destructive or unproductive. For many this means starting a new diet, or quitting smoking. All noble causes. However, if you use a computer, may I suggest a resolution that is just as important to the health of your PC?

Back up your data.

If you routinely use a computer, the chances are that you have files on it that if lost, would cause emotional or financial chaos in your life. Most people never think about a back up strategy until it’s too late. Trust me – if you have photos, movies or music on your computer, losing them forever would be devastating.

Backing up your data used to be a chore. Now there are several methods and mediums that can make backups painless.

Time Machine

Included with every installation of Mac OS X since Leopard (10.5). Time Machine is a “set it and forget it” type of backup, the kind that most people will benefit from. Buy an external hard drive, plug it in to you Mac, and you will be asked if you would like to use this drive as a Time Machine backup. Answer in the affirmative, and over the course of the next couple of hours, your Mac will backup your hard drive to the external volume. As new files are created/changed, those changes are written to the Time Machine backup automatically. Time Machine will keep as many revisions of files as it has room to, giving you the ability to go back to a file to a point in time easily, and retrieve the prior version and restore it.

Pros: Easy to setup and maintain. Intuitive interface for restoring single files.
Cons: Restoring the entire volume can take some time. Lack of configuration options make Time Machine a “take it or leave” solution.

Bootable Backups

Time Machine is great, but if your Mac’s hard drive crashes, you would have to replace that drive with a new drive, and then restore your back up from Time Machine to the new drive. This could put you out of commission for days, depending upon how big your Time Machine backup is and how fast your can replace the drive that failed.

If being without your Mac for any period of time means lost money or productivity, you probably want a bootable backup instead of (or in addition to) a Time Machine backup.

Using a tool like Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper!, you attach an external volume to your Mac, fire up the software, and in no time, you are creating a perfect duplicate of your current hard drive that is bootable. Now, if your primary hard drive fails, you can boot from this backup and keep on working, or install a new blank drive and clone the new drive from your bootable backup, and be up and running in a fraction of the time it would take you to restore from Time Machine.

Pros: Fastest backup/restore option.
Cons: Doesn’t save multiple versions of files like Time Machine does.

Offsite Backup

Both of the above options, either separately or together, will provide a solid insurance policy for most computer users. However, there is one scenario under which both backups would be useless.

Since both backup scenarios above essentially dictate that your backup drive is kept close to the machine you are backing up, what would happen if your dwelling was involved in a fire, or a flood? Your data would be destroyed along with most of the other possessions.

That’s where offsite backups come in to place. For less than $60/year, you can backup your data over the internet to an offsite service provider. These solutions work in the background, and can set up a schedule where the transfer of files happens at a time of your choosing.

Players in this field include Carbonite, Mozy and Backblaze. All promise unlimited backup. Where they differ is in cost and restoration options. Because these backups are performed offsite, if your computer goes down, you will not have immediate access to your data. Imagine you have backed up 500GB of data. Restoring 500GB of backup over the internet is going to take some time. Luckily, most of these services offer the option of having a USB hard drive sent to your with your data. This additional service comes with a price, and still means that retrieving your data will take 3-4 days.

If your data totals less than 100GB, another option is DropBox. DropBox offers 2GB of free data backup and syncing, with plans offering 50GB ($9.99/month) and 100GB ($19.99/month) available as well.

Pros: Set it and forget it. Unlimited amount of data. Inexpensive.
Cons: Backing up/restoring over the internet is slow (even with fast connections). In my test, over a very fast Comcast cable connection, 600GB took over 3 weeks to back up. If you have a metered internet connection, your backups will eat away at your available bandwidth.

Conclusion

Any of these solutions is better than not backing up at all. All three offer a way to get your data back in the event of data loss. If your data is irreplaceable, I’d suggest using all three methods. If you aren’t concerned about restoring your data in a timely fashion and don’t have a metered data plan from your internet provider, an offsite backup solution will do the job. If your computer is your livelihood, using a cloning tool like SuperDuper! or Carbon Copy Cloner will have you back up and running in the least possible amount of time.

Personally, I use all three. My computer is my most essential tool for my job, and my data is irreplaceable. With all three backup solutions, I keep all the bases covered in case of any type of catastrophe.

Recommendations:

Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex 2 TB USB 2.0 External Hard Drive (currently $120)

Backblaze – Unlimited offsite backup ($50/year)

Carbon Copy Cloner – free download, donations encouraged.

SuperDuper! – free trial, $28

Category: Opinion

About the author

A user of Macs since they had silly names like Performa and Centris, Theodore Lee is a techie who prides himself on his vast knowledge of all things Apple. OS X Factor was started in 2001 (originally as macosxcentric), and continues to churn out tips, tutorials, reviews and commentary on the tech sector.